National Security

Suspected chemical attack puts Trump’s Syria policy at center stage

This photo provided Tuesday, April 4, 2017, by the Syrian anti-government activist group Edlib Media Center shows a Syrian doctor treating a child following a suspected chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Syria.
This photo provided Tuesday, April 4, 2017, by the Syrian anti-government activist group Edlib Media Center shows a Syrian doctor treating a child following a suspected chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Syria. AP

As President Donald Trump joined world leaders in denouncing a suspected chemical attack in Syria on Tuesday, he blamed the attack on the “weakness and irresolution” of President Barack Obama’s administration and said nothing about how or whether his administration would respond.

In what was described as the deadliest chemical attack in Syria since 2013, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said that at least 58 civilians, including 11 children, died in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in northern Syria when airstrikes targeted a hospital.

Videos shared by residents and doctors at the scene appeared to show victims choking, foaming at the mouth and fainting as rescue workers hosed them down. A hospital where some of the victims were being treated was later struck by an airstrike.

Today’s chemical attack in Syria against innocent people, including women and children, is reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world.

President Donald Trump

“These heinous actions by the Bashar al Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution,” Trump said in a statement. “President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing.”

That was a reference to the subsequent apparent use in August 2013 of chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus, which killed at least 400 people and perhaps hundreds more. The Obama administration initially planned to strike targets inside Syria to retaliate but dropped the idea after first the British and then Congress expressed little appetite for such a response. Instead, the crisis led to a Syrian agreement to destroy its chemical weapons supplies.

Trump had been among those urging Obama not to attack in 2013. “President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your ‘powder’ for another (and more important) day!” he tweeted as debate raged over the possible U.S. response.

On Tuesday, lawmakers from both parties blamed recent statements from Trump administration officials for “appeasing” and “empowering” Assad and his Russian and Iranian advocates.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the U.N. body that oversees international bans on chemical weapons, said it was gathering information about the attack. It certified the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons in August 2014.

While the suspected gas attack was widely denounced by world leaders – including France, Britain, Turkey, Israel, the European Union and the United Nations – there was no indication that any planned to take action.

France and Britain called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, which is scheduled for Wednesday.

The Trump administration also offered no sign that it planned to act. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the administration would not “telegraph what we’re going to do.” He said Trump met with his national security team Tuesday morning.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ignored questions from reporters about the attack at a photo availability with King Abdullah II of Jordan at the State Department.

[READ MORE: U.S. acknowledges a ‘fair chance’ its airstrike killed scores of civilians in Mosul]

“No words can capture the depth of this horror,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said in a statement.

Last week, Trump’s ambassador to the United States, Nikki Haley, said the U.S. was changing its focus in Syria from Assad’s ouster to defeating the Islamic State.

“Do we think he’s a hindrance? Yes. Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No,” she said.

Her comments echoed Tillerson’s, who said during a visit to Turkey last week that the “longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people” – a statement that was widely interpreted as a significant shift from Obama Syria policy when Tillerson’s predecessor, John Kerry, and Obama repeatedly called for Assad to step down.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on Tuesday called Tillerson’s remarks “one of the more incredible statements I’ve ever heard.”

“Bashar Assad and his friends, the Russians, take note of what Americans say,” he said on CNN. “I’m sure they took note of what our secretary of state said just the other day. . . . I’m sure they are encouraged to know the United States is withdrawing and seeking a new arrangement with the Russians. It is another disgraceful chapter in American history and it was predictable.”

It is another disgraceful chapter in American history and it was predictable.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., last week called the Trump change in policy “the biggest mistake since President Obama failed to act after drawing a red line against Assad’s use of chemical weapons.”

Shajul Islam, a British doctor on the scene Tuesday, tweeted videos showing a patient with “non-reactive pinpoint pupils” that he said proved the attack was not chlorine. Another doctor on the scene in Idlib, Feras al Jundi, said the attack could only be sarin or a similar deadly agent.

“If it’s what it looks like, it’s clearly a war crime,” a State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told reporters in a briefing on Tuesday.

Responding to the attack, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said the U.S. “figuratively jumped in Putin’s lap over an agreement to remove Syria’s chemical weapons that we now know did not fully occur.”

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., called the chemical attack “continued proof that Bashar al-Assad is a war criminal, not a potential partner.”

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., said in a statement that “it is clear there is no hope for real peace in Syria until Assad is held accountable.”

Many U.S. allies on Tuesday seemed to agree. “Those saying Syrian people will decide Assad’s future: No people will remain if attacks continue,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted on Tuesday.

“I’m very clear that there can be no future for Assad in a stable Syria,” British Prime Minister Theresa May said in an interview with the BBC. “I call on all the parties involved to insure that we have a transition away from Assad.”

The civil war in Syria has killed more than 500,000 people in six years and displaced more than half of the prewar population of 22 million from their homes.

Franco Ordoñez contributed to this report.

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen